How to Get a Meals Tax Passed

Image credit: Henrico Monthly
Image credit: Henrico Monthly

by James A. Bacon

This past April the Richmond Association of Realtors commissioned a poll to assess the views of Henrico County voters toward a proposed 4% meals tax. When CEO Laura Lafayette reviewed the results, she knew the pro-tax forces faced a major challenge in getting the tax enacted. Respondents opposed the idea 67% to 32%.

But on election day, the meals tax passed with a two-point margin of victory. Writing in Henrico Monthly, Greg Weatherford provides the behind-the-scenes story of how the Axis of Taxes got the job done.

The simple explanation is that the taxers out-spent the anti-taxers by 16 to one. Yes 4 Henrico’s Kids, a pro-tax advocacy group backed by the Realtors and other business interests, pumped $197,000 into the campaign. Henrico County spent another $46,000 on a website and mailers. And those numbers under-state the resources invested. County administrators dedicated hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of staff time to delivering the pro-tax sales pitch under the guise of “informational” presentations at dozens of public hearings.

By contrast, Sidney Gunst, the most visible of the anti-tax activists, spent $15,000 of his own money for a website, stickers, Val-Pak inserts and limited advertising.

The really interesting story, though, is the strategy behind the spending. A trio of political consultants active in Democratic Party campaigns — Abbi Easter, Michael Brown and Rhett Walker — formed a brain trust for the Realtors. The “three amigos” came up with one key insight that decided the outcome: While the county’s substantial black population regarded the meals tax as regressive, hitting them disproportionately, they were receptive to the idea that the meals tax would prevent cuts to Henrico County Public Schools, which would impact poor, black-majority schools in the county’s East End the hardest. By framing the issue as one of protecting public schools from cuts, the pro-taxers won decisive support from black voters.

Weatherford describes a meeting in early October in which Varina District Supervisor Tyrone Nelson and about 15 ministers, mostly African-Americans, met with County Manager John Vithoulkas. The Rev. Marcus Martin, writes Weatherford, “came away from the meeting convinced that sharp cuts in the schools budget would fall hardest on poor students, whose parents can’t afford to pay for services not provided through the school.” Without the tax, said Martin, schools faced “catastrophic cuts.”

Gunst and other anti-tax voices (including me) argued that the threat of catastrophic cuts to schools was a scare tactic. First, we noted, property values were booming and the county would enjoy a windfall increase in real estate property tax revenues that had not been anticipated in budget forecasts. Second, we suggested ways the county could find money for schools from general government funding.

But as Weatherford notes, “Opposing voices were drowned out. The well-organized county management and the efficient work of the Richmond Association of Realtors and its team of political consultants were driving home their points.”

The county public relations staff worked all out to line up community meetings, where Vithoulkas, Budget Director Brandon Hinton and other officials could make the case. At the public hearings, county officials refused to debate the opponents on the grounds that they weren’t taking sides, they were simply presenting “the facts,” and therefore there was no one to debate. The format left county officials firmly in control of the hearings. While they did take questions from opponents, administrators could rebut them at length and cut them off at will.

Meanwhile, Yes 4 Henrico’s Kids ramped up its own website, hit the school-disparity issue with a mailer and organized a get-out-the-event drive in which 1,500 school children knocked on doors in the Fairfield district on election day to get out the vote.

It wasn’t easy changing the minds of nearly 20% of voters from opponents from “no” to “yes,” but the pro-taxers pulled it off. They deserve a grudging respect for their political acumen. But the battle is not over. The meals tax is a short-term palliative that will not address Henrico’s long-term fiscal and educational challenges. In the absence of fundamental reform — and there is no evidence that any such reform is contemplated — budget pressures will mount, school performance will continue to underwhelm and the Axis of Taxes will come back for more.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


7 responses to “How to Get a Meals Tax Passed”

  1. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Jim –

    The story you tell is the sure sign of an apathetic electorate – voters who are highly susceptible to the tactics of demagogy combine with a majority of other potential voters who are simply disengaged from the process altogether.

    An electorate comprised those suffering from passive disengagement and alienation and those others who make decisions based solely on emotions end up with what they deserve. A government doing things that most often works against the the self interest of those who enable it.

  2. actually it’s a fascinating glimpse into how the initial wishes of voters were changed – and I’m assuming that we did not get a larger than normal turnout (of folks who normally do not vote) and instead we had a normal turnout but minds changed – mostly black/minority minds. That’s not apathy.. that’s the opposite in my view.

    but here’s what caught my eye: ” he Rev. Marcus Martin, writes Weatherford, “came away from the meeting convinced that sharp cuts in the schools budget would fall hardest on poor students, whose parents can’t afford to pay for services not provided through the school.” Without the tax, said Martin, schools faced “catastrophic cuts.”

    how do people arrive at that conclusion rather than thinking the cuts would be across the board – shared equally?

    so people who normally would vote against a regressive tax would be convinced that if they did – it would hurt their own kids because they feared the cuts would target their schools more than others?

    perhaps I’m misunderstanding the sentiment. Perhaps they did feel that cuts would be county-wide but in their area – any cuts, even equitable shared cuts would hurt them.

    At any rate – if minority/poor voters could be “reached” in this manner on this issue – why not other issues also?

    Every since Obama turned out more people than was expected, it appears that more effort is being put on that end of the electorate and with success.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    If conservatives and conservative causes don’t quickly how to use social media, the internet and “basic” big data they will be as extinct as the dinosaur.

    1. Sidney used social media extensively. At the end of the day, he concluded that the dollars spent on social media were by far the most effective. Next time, he’ll know better!

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Is it “demogagy” for one political interest group to say if they don’t raise a tax then their schools will be cut? The disparity between Eastern and Western Henrico is not open for dispute. It’s a fact. If there were school cuts, Eastern Henrico would be hit harder.

    Meanwhile, back home in Chesterfield, the county is looking at other tax hikes because its more modest meal tax failed.

    The problem with conservatives like Bacon is that they want great services without taxes while claiming that some magic of new efficiency or MOOCs or somesuch will make the difference.

    The fact is that you’re screwed either way — your taxes will go up in some fashion.

  5. I think fiscal conservatives don’t want to pay more taxes for the same services and they often don’t want/more better services for increased taxes unless convinced so and they are pretty much convinced that govt without a profit motive tends to spend in ways that no well run business would.

    But on the issue of pension funds, we’ve learned that local/city and state government have not operated their pension funds in ways that businesses ostensibly do – but even businesses have underfunded pensions and more than 5000 just bailed out on their promises and now we can include Detroit.

    So in Henrico – they have this problem and they (I think) sought to address it by increasing taxes rather that cutting spending or cutting teachers.

    …and I’m thinking when you mention cutting teachers in places where at-risk kids depend on teachers – the issue went sideways.

    Isn’t it also odd that the rest of the county did not see the perceived cuts to education as the dire threat that the eastern part did?

  6. Breckinridge Avatar

    It reminds me of the old joke about the football game between the Italians and the Poles, where the Italians leave the field for some reason and six plays later the Poles score. I know, I know, politically incorrect.

    But the point is that the anti-tax crowd is disorganized and distracted. They are too busy trying to defeat perceived RINOs, with no time to actually make their case in a real referendum. Only one team was on the field and six plays later the other team scored.

    It was a referendum. The voters spoke. Some spoke by not showing up. Move along here, story over….

Leave a Reply